How to Be a Truly Courageous Leader

African american business woman

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

You’ve established your vision, communicated it well, and people are obviously enthused about your direction and trust you to follow through on it. And while you are working on becoming more and more authentic and vulnerable, balancing being strong with being humble, your real test has yet to come.

The Courage Test

To illustrate this type of test, take the case of Beth, Vice President of Operations for a high tech organization who was charged with “changing the culture” of her organization. When she was handed the task by her manager, she was alarmed to discover that the change he was asking her to lead was poorly defined and by the sounds of it would be inadequately resourced.

“It’s really simple” said Don, her manager, “just get people to understand that our future survival is at stake – if we don’t become more customer focused, cost effective and speedier at execution, we’re doomed. He continued “What we’re looking for here is innovative breakthroughs that will drive down costs, ramp up quality and improve responsiveness and speed to market. Basically we’re looking for improvements on all fronts. You have my full support, but as you know we don’t have a blank cheque to support this.This is more about changing the culture of our organization than it is about capital expenditures. Think of it as improvement without capital. I’m giving you this assignment because I respect you, and because six months from now after my retirement, you will be given the reins.”

With an already full plate, Beth suddenly felt overwhelmed. Yet she knew that Don was right about survival – she was intimately familiar with the numbers…and they weren’t pretty. When she got back to her office, she took a deep breath and pulled out her cell phone. She called Peter, her mentor who was always someone she could trust. Calm, collected and very focused, he would help her put things into perspective. She wasn’t prepared for his response as she described her challenge – “Are you crazy? You mean you took this on without negotiating with him on the resources you would need? You know you can’t do this alone, and given your organizations individualistic culture, you’re going to have a tough time convincing your peers to support you!”

Peter is right, she thought. He never shirks from telling it like it is. He is a courageous leader. Beth realised that changing a culture from being individualistic to being truly collaborative is not a one-person assignment. Nor is it a “project”.

Beth knew, deep down that she would need to draw upon her personal strengths, while remaining humble, in order to have any chance of success. She knew that she had to influence others, that she couldn’t demand change. She also knew that there can be no influence without rapport and trust.

So she set about identifying ways she could build greater rapport and trust with her peers and staff, and also with her manager Don. Given the urgency of the challenge, and the daily time pressures people were already under, timing would be everything. There was already a senior management quarterly retreat organized for two weeks from now, so with great determination, she went back to Don and told him they needed to use the entire two days to “lay it on the table”. Don was fully supportive.

If you were in Beth’s shoes, how would you handle the challenge? In particular, how would you…

  1. Establish a foundation for greater rapport, trust and candidness amongst the management team?
  2. Instil a sense of urgency?
  3. Play to your strengths, yet remain humble?
  4. Make certain everyone had a voice?
  5. Remain true to your core values?
  6. Start off on the right foot at the management retreat?
  7. Help the management team identify what they need to STOP doing, CONTINUE doing and START doing to achieve a shift in culture from being individualistic to being collaborative?

You can probably come up with more challenges, but these should be enough to get you going…

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